Chapter 23:

023 ┃ The Hot Springs Episode

The Isle of the Forgotten

Spud immediately felt his face turning red upon hearing his friend's suggestion.

“Bat... bathe? Right now?” he stammered with a nervous laugh.

“Yes. Weren’t you the one who said you were cold?” Dawn asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, yes, but this is…” Spud began to mumble, but Dawn cut him off.

“Come on, let's get in or we'll freeze out here,” she said, starting to undress.

Spud was alarmed instantly and turned around, feeling anxious.

“Why are you taking off your clothes?” he asked, flustered.

“You don't expect us to bathe with our clothes on, do you?” she replied, amused.

“No, but... where’s the men's section?”

“There isn't one here,” she said, finishing undressing. She carefully dipped her toe into the water. “Oh, it's perfect. What are you waiting for?”

“Huh? You expect me to join you?” he asked, startled.

“Of course. That's why I brought you,” Dawn replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Don't you want to? Bathing here while it’s snowing is the best, I promise.”

“I... I didn't say I didn't want to, but...” Spud tried to explain but was so nervous he couldn't articulate his words.

“So, what’s the matter?” Dawn asked, observing him with crossed arms. Suddenly, it seemed like a lightbulb went off in her head. “Oh, I get it. You're shy. If it’s any consolation, there's nothing I haven't practically seen already, so...”

Spud's face went completely red, imagining Dawn at the lake looking at his...

“Fine, I’ll get in! But don’t go on, please,” he interrupted, covering his blushing face.

Pressured by his friend, Spud undressed as quickly as possible and entered the water.

At least half an hour passed where neither of them spoke. Although he didn't admit it, it felt great inside. It was as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. All his muscles relaxed, and the few injuries he had gradually stopped hurting. Moreover, the contrast between the falling snow's cold and the hot spring's warmth made him feel especially comfortable.

Yet, he couldn’t help but feel uneasy. He had seen Dawn in her underwear when they made a bonfire at the lake, but she wasn't naked at that time. Also, the atmosphere between them felt different now, more intimate. He couldn't quite understand it. The more time they spent together, the closer they became, but at the same time, things got weirder.

Dawn sighed in pleasure, resting her head on a nearby rock.

“This place is amazing, isn’t it?” she finally said, breaking the eerie silence.

Spud made a brief noise of agreement, only to look away with his body submerged up to his mouth.

“You know? When I found this place last year, it was by accident. I remember coming so often that my skin turned red,” she laughed, glancing at him.

“Oh,” Spud replied, avoiding direct eye contact.

After a few moments of silence where Spud felt his heart racing, Dawn said, “Hey, are you ignoring me?”

“I'm not,” Spud replied in a soft tone. He could feel her sharp gaze, which made him even more anxious.

“You are. Why are you avoiding my gaze?”

He sank deeper into the water, nervous. From his perspective, most of Dawn's upper body was exposed. Even with the steam and the distance between them, Spud didn't dare to look.

“You know why,” he replied.

“Huh? What?” she asked, genuinely confused.

“It’s obvious why I’m avoiding looking at you,” Spud said, his voice timid.

Dawn curved her lips into a mischievous smile.

“You're not imagining weird things, are you?” she teased, causing Spud to choke in surprise.

“N... no, of course not!” he exclaimed. He sneakily glanced at her and unintentionally made brief eye contact. Maybe it was because of the warmth, but he swore he saw her blush too.

Another moment of silence. Spud couldn’t see her but was too flustered to speak.

“Aren't you going to look at me at all?” Dawn teased.


She slowly approached until she was less than two meters from him.

“How about now?”

“Still no.”

Dawn then stood up, fully revealing her naked form.

“And now?” she asked, amused.

Spud felt his heart racing so fast he thought he could hear it.

“Stop joking. You're an exhibitionist,” he said, still flustered.

Dawn burst into laughter.

“You should see your face. It’s bright red,” she said between laughs. Spud’s only reaction was to try and submerge himself further into the water, irritated by her teasing.

As she laughed, Dawn slipped on a rock and fell backward with a muffled scream. Hearing this, Spud reacted faster than he thought possible. He swiftly turned and caught Dawn in mid-air, preventing her from hitting her head. They both fell into the water, their bodies touching and faces separated by mere inches.

After the commotion, they seemed to stay silent for what felt like hours to Spud, just staring into each other's eyes. Only their heavy breaths could be heard. Despite her earlier teasing, Dawn now looked as red as he did, and the teasing look was replaced by a mix of surprise and vulnerability. At that moment, Spud couldn't help but feel the urge to kiss her.

“Are you okay?” he whispered. No matter how flustered he felt, he couldn't look away.

“Yes,” she replied in a tone Spud had never heard her use.

Upon realizing their close proximity, Spud felt like he was jolted back to reality and quickly moved away, submerging himself in the water once again. He avoided looking at her, conscious that he might have made things awkward.

“I'm sorry,” he said.

Dawn slowly got up, seemingly dazed.

“Don't apologize. Thank you for catching me,” she replied in a still soft tone. After a few moments of silence, she stood up. “It's time for us to go. I'll go dry off.”

Spud remained silent, processing everything that had just happened.

“Aren’t you coming?” Dawn asked, looking back at him.

The boy made a motion to stand up but quickly grabbed his groin and sank back down. He blushed again. He couldn't get out of the water at that moment.

"I'll stay a few more minutes."

After a while, they met in the house's lobby. Both were dressed, but Spud couldn't help but feel the awkward tension between them once again. Unlike before, Dawn was avoiding his gaze and seemed a bit more distant. The boy thought maybe the earlier situation had upset his friend, but he hoped not. Not when he had finally become her friend.

"Shall we go?" the girl asked without looking into his eyes.

The boy nodded and began to follow her. Before they stepped outside, something caught his attention. Right next to the entrance, though largely hidden by moss and vines, he could make out an inscription carved in stone.

Spud approached it curiously, causing Dawn to stop and watch him. He cleared the stone of plants to read the inscription properly.

"What is it?" asked Dawn.

"It's strange. I think I've seen these words somewhere before," explained Spud, thoughtfully.

After a few moments, he realized. He quickly pulled out the map they had found at the lake house from his bag. Since he couldn't read the names of any of the places, it had been nothing more than a pretty piece of paper until then. Even so, Spud had tried to memorize what each of the names looked like, hoping to decipher it at some point.

He searched through each name on the map and finally found it. The exact same letters that were engraved in the stone. If there was any remaining doubt, the map even had a small pictogram depicting hot springs.

He looked at the map again, feeling his heart race with excitement from his discovery.

"Dawn, I know where we are."

A. Hoshino